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Santa Monica mayor says it’s time to end L.A. County needle exchange program at park

A needle exchange operation
Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich is calling for a needle exchange program at Reed Park to be relocated. Above, a needle exchange operation in downtown Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Monica city officials and residents are calling for an end to a Los Angeles County Department of Public Health weekly needle exchange program in Reed Park.

In an open letter sent to county officials last week, Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich called for the program to be relocated from public spaces in the city and preferably to an indoor site.

She outlined Santa Monica’s four pillars strategy, which aims to “address homelessness and prevent residents from becoming unhoused.” One of those pillars is to maintain access to the city’s open spaces, something Himmelrich’s letter states the syringe exchange program impedes with each week.

“We understand our limited regulatory authority,” the letter reads, “however, rather than implement this program in our parks and open spaces, we seek your assistance in immediately moving this program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors) where individuals in need of substance abuse, mental health, and other services can coordinate and work directly with service providers.”

L.A. advocates say Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto doesn’t shut the door to safe injection sites.

Himmelrich’s letter states that Santa Monica officials have requested a formal proposal that outlines new restrictions on the time, place and manner of the syringe exchange program within the city.

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Currently, the county Department of Public Health, alongside the Venice Family Clinic, sets up weekly, three-hour visits to the park to distribute clean needles and Narcan doses as part of the county’s Harm Reduction Syringe Services Program.

Brian Hurley, the medical director for substance abuse prevention and control at county health, said the department was aware of the community’s concerns before receiving the letter.

“In our view, the community concerns, while I can understand them, I also would underscore that it’s not as though the county Department of Public Health is intending to overwhelm the park with an overwhelming number of services,” Hurley said. “We’re talking about something that’s three hours a week.”

To prevent overdose deaths, Los Angeles County health officials made a push to distribute 50,000 boxes of Narcan — a nasal spray that can block the effects of an opioid overdose — by this summer.

Hurley said negotiations to relocate the program are underway with county and Santa Monica city officials, and ideas include moving the weekly services to an indoor location or using a van that people can sit inside of, away from view. But these ideas pose their own challenges, Hurley said.

Keeping the program easily accessible is paramount, Hurley said, and is an additional step that requires consideration when discussing relocation. The program will continue to operate out of Reed Park until a solution is reached.

“We look at this as an opportunity to expand access to overdose prevention, not curtail it,” Hurley said. “If that means adjusting some of the locations or manner in which we deliver, we can do that. But we need to make sure we’re focused on the point of these services ... Not seeking to take a service away because of concerns about its visibility.”


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